For more than three decades, New York Theatre Workshop has distinguished itself as a producer of groundbreaking new works—productions that expanded the boundaries of theatre and addressed urgently important issues of our time. It established itself downtown as a launch pad with Rent, again with Scenes from a Marriage and, most recently, with David Bowie’s Lazarus. Other works, like Once or Peter and the Starcatcher, went on to have significant commercial success. The Off-Broadway theatre has a long history of backing adventurous projects, but artistic director James C. Nicola is reluctant to call it “risk-taking.”
“As I live it, I don’t perceive it as that,” says Nicola, who has been at the downtown venue since 1988. “This is the thing about growing old. You can look back on your life and see certain events that went by; and now you look back and they've become iconic.” The 1996 Tony Award for Rent peaks down from its perch on his bookshelf.
Nicola recalls a story from his childhood: He was four years old and on an Easter egg hunt. Instead of searching in the obvious hiding places with the other children, he wandered deep into the woods, disappearing for a time. His absence terrified his mother, who sent a search party for him, but it seemed logical to Nicola. His Easter egg hunt approach has followed him through his artistic career at the helm of one of New York’s most celebrated theatres. “Why do the obvious thing that everybody else is doing? There’s more value if you have to work harder to get to it,” he says.
“That’s what I perceive it as,” he continues, referring to his willingness to look beyond the usual ideas. “That’s how it started with Ivo [van Hove] 20 years ago.” Nicola went on a trip to Amsterdam in 1995 and was immediately impressed by the young director’s work, who was completely unknown in the United States at the time. He admired his ability to think outside the box when it came to presenting classic American plays. “There’s a way that [classic theatre] should be done and acted and designed,” he says. “He just didn’t have any of that information because he was outside of it. I saw these startling revisions and new ideas about plays that I thought I’d never need to see again.”
Nicola began to foster a close relationship with the artist, who is now an international theatre heavyweight, known for his high-concept style. The director made his Broadway debut last fall with the acclaimed revival of A View From the Bridge, debuted Lazarus and will soon direct the upcoming revival of The Crucible. In his office hangs a framed vintage poster: Peter Sellars’ first directing gig out of college. Nicola says that NYTW has a legacy of supporting innovative directors, like these, which is as much a part of its success story as the original works it has produced.
In 1979, NYTW’s founding trustee, Stephen Graham, organized a foundation to support directors and playwrights individually. "In 1979, it was really pioneering,” says Nicola. “He supported them equally and wanted to put forth into the universe that the director was a critical and equal initiating force in the theatrical process.” The foundation was dedicated to supporting artists “without structure or form,” he explains, and allowed them to dictate how that support was shaped—be it through supply of rehearsal space or financial resources.
NYTW has worked hard to maintain this legacy of not only nurturing working relationships with artists but also encouraging collaboration. “I think what makes the Workshop unique is that these relationships are sustained, not only by the artistic team at the Workshop, but also with each other,” says managing director Jeremy Blocker. “It’s a community of artists.” Their sought-after Usual Suspects program, a network of over 500 affiliated theatre artists, supports the creation of new work. The Workshop leadership extends invitations to join to promising artists and works to forge connections within the community.
“What we do put a lot of commitment and faith in, is continuing relationships once they start,” says Nicola. This philosophy of “continuing the dialogue,” as he puts it, has been the secret behind some of the Workshop's most ambitious projects. It’s what enables long-time NYTW artists like Tony winner Sam Gold to pitch a project like the upcoming Othello with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo already in tow. “When [Sam Gold] came to us with that idea, it already had those guys involved and interested,” says Blocker.
While Blocker says that the organization encourages its artists to “think big" and would love to make every dream a reality, it remains a not-for-profit theater with limited budgetary constraints. “[It’s] a challenge for any 200-seat theatre in New York City to do because even if you can guarantee you’ll sell every ticket, there aren’t that many tickets,” says Blocker. “So that’s the challenge. How do we fund the larger vision?”
“There are some pretty big plays that we’re interested in doing,” he continues. “Even if we know they’re going to sell a lot of tickets and generate some interest, it’s still challenging to fill the gap between that and what the costs of the production are because we just don’t have the inventory—the capacity in our theatre—to pay for productions in a way that a commercial theatre might.”
Part of the solution has been to accept financing from commercial producers, like Robert Fox, who contributed to Lazarus' rumored million-dollar budget. Blocker says it's a constant challenge navigating commercial attraction. “We have to be incredibly pragmatic about that,” says Nicola. “We have to take it where we can get it, which means we have to be really careful not to compromise core ideas. Because I think that’s a big danger in that kind of atmosphere.”
In staging ambitious, high-profile productions like Lazarus or the upcoming Othello, Blocker reveals they have seen a notable increase in the number of NYTW subscribers. “I don’t think it would be a shock to say that the effect has been to grow the subscriber base,” he says. “We have not yet hit the point where we are over-subscribed…[But] it’s something we have our eye on, because we want to make sure that we remain open to audience members who might not have the resources to put down for a subscription,” he continues.“We want to make sure that there are enough seats that we’re seeing other people, too.” (Welcome news to the anticipated large number of Bond fans who will be trying to secure a ticket to Othello in the fall.)
It’s true that the Workshop’s projects might be off the beaten path on Nicola’s Easter egg hunt, but it’s an element of theatre we will always need to ensure we preserve La Vie Boheme.
NYTW is now in previews for Lucas Hnath's Red Speedo, an exploration of America's obsession with winning at all costs. The production officially opens March 3. For more information on NYTW's season and how to purchase tickets visit www.nytw.org.
Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement_.